the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Want to Join the Tribe?

(Hanukah Lamp, Manfred Anson, 1986)

Jews are comfortable in America, maybe too comfortable.  With a large percentage of Jews intermarrying and a low Jewish birthrate, there’s been a drop from 4 percent to 2 percent of the general American population in the last fifty years. 

Is there a way to stop this demographic decline?

New York Times columnist William Safire has the answer.  In a speech in Jerusalem, he said American Jews should do to Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and Muslims what they’ve been trying to do to us Jews for thousands of years — convert them.

It’s not a bad idea.  I always thought Jews were too wimpy in promoting their own religion.  So, as a service to my fellow Jews, let me do my small part by trying to convert you, my non-Jewish reader:

Being Jewish is cool.  I’ve enjoyed it my entire life.  I went to Hebrew School.  I got bar mitzvahed.  I had a great Jewish wedding ceremony, complete with klezmer band.  I like temple… sometimes.  I don’t even miss not celebrating Christmas. There’s no law that says I can’t sing "The Little Drummer Boy" with my non-Jewish friends or even with Jewish friends.   The secret is out — Jews love those great Christmas songs.   That’s why Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond made those awful Christmas albums.  You Christians win hands down with Christmas over Hanukkah, but sorry, guys — Passover is better than Easter. 

Jews love food, and there is always a lot of food at a Jewish event.  Jewish woman are smart and funny.   Jews like education.   Jews don’t talk all the time about scary things like "original sin" and "Satan."   Jews have made it through a lot of bad times.  Temples aren’t usually as nifty-looking as cathedrals and churches, but rabbis are usually friendly guys and gals.  While there are many conservative Jews, most Jews don’t spend every moment of the day worrying about abortion and the evils of stem cell research.  One bad thing is that Jews argue a bit too much among themselves.  I even remember two Jewish talent agents  fighting over the same seat in a Beverly Hills synagogue — on Yom Kippur of all times. 

"I’m with CAA!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.

The Ten Commandments — ours.   If you love reading, Judaism is for you.  There’s the Torah, the Talmud, the Mishnah —

Think about it, my Christian friends, do you really believe that Jesus was the son of God?  I mean, I respect your religion and all, but c’mon.  Let’s be rational

The only problem with this conversion attempt is that if I’m being rational, which I am, much of this Jewish stuff is as far-fetched as your religion.  In fact, it’s as far-fetched as every other religion on this planet.  

How am I going to convince you to be kosher if I’m not kosher?  How can I sell being Jewish if I’m not sure what it means myself?  Does William Safire really think that American Jews, a mostly secular bunch, are going to be effective spokespeople in converting others? 

The most successful branch of Judaism in converting others is the Orthodox.  After all, they are the most "religious" and confident in their beliefs.  I sincerely doubt that Mr. Safire was addressing Orthodox Jews when he suggested Jews should proselytize.   I think he was probably thinking of someone more like himself, a sophisticated, newly minted Jewish man or woman who could sit with him all morning in a cafe and talk about the latest Op-Ed page.  The Orthodox man is probably too busy working and praying, while the Orthodox woman is too busy taking care of her six children. 

I tried my best.   Next Year in Jerusalem.   If not, maybe we can at least share some bagels and lox while singing carols on Christmas.


  1. Fun Joel

    Well, the main reason he’d be wasting his time talking to the Orthodox (and presumably many of the others as well) is that the traditional view is to DISCOURAGE conversion. Comes from the book of Ruth, which we just read on Shavuot (that’s the terribly-named-in-English Pentecost). When Ruth decided to convert, her mother-in-law Naomi tried to discourage her three times before accepting her.

    So anyway, while increasing our numbers through conversion might be a good thing on one hand, it ain’t likely to happen on the other. Though the truth is that there HAS actually been a trend towards an increase in the number of converts to Judaism. I myself know quite a number going through the process of Orthodox conversion as we speak.

    And yes, I too am clearly an M.O.T. (Member of the Tribe). So where can I get one of them groovy “proud American” menorahs?

  2. Josia

    Fabulous post Neil! I may have to plug you again. But you’ve left yourself wide open for a huge kabbalah blast from me – if you really want to know what it means to be Jewish – you need to look at those links I sent you from – by the way – a lot of people from all kinds of faiths are currently joining the tribe – you’re just not aware of it – kabbalah is above all religions and provides the only satisfying answer to the kind of genuine fulfillment people are seeking nowadays and not finding anywhere – in existing education or religious or cultural institutions. That is because it’s the oldest science in the world and now the scientific method of attaining the upper world is available to all – and in English! Just a bit of technical stuff now – I’m a woman and you should actually be hearing all this from a man so I’m going to quote Rav Laitman:

    People in this world are all ordinary people. But to one Persian named Abram (and later Abraham), the Creator revealed Himself , and it is that revelation that made him special. He became a “Yehudi” (Jewish), from the word “Yechudi” (single-unique), that is he and the Creator became one. Who then is this Abraham? He is a man who was endowed with a spiritual spark, a sensation of the Creator. But other than that he was an ordinary person.

    There is no sanctity to any organ in our body. Thus it matters not if a dysfunctional heart is replaced with a human heart or a pig’s heart. Our organs are just as material as any animal’s. They are not sacred, not connected with the Creator.

    There is no difference between a Jew and a Gentile, other than that spark of the Creator found in the Jew. That means that if that spark exists in a person’s heart , that person is named Jewish. If it vanishes, the Jew again becomes a Gentile. The latter, however, is an impossible situation, because sanctity always increases and never decreases. It is a spiritual law, by which everything is brought closer to the Creator.

    Yup – I’m definitely going to have to plug you … nice writing by the way … you’re not kosher?? Just kidding – I keep kosher but do you really really think that that’s what the Creator is concerned with? It’s way way more sophisticated for our generation my friend …

  3. Jim

    Neil Diamond has a Christmas album?

  4. Neil

    Sure. So does Kenny G! And it’s not a “White Christmas” without Irving Berlin.

  5. Charlie

    I hate to use Sex in the City as an example, this reminds me of the episode of the last season when WASPy Charlotte first approaches the Rabbi at his home telling him that she wants to convert. He looks her up and down, says “Thanks, but we’re not interested,” and slams the door in her face.

    That scene pretty sums up Judiasm’s attitude on conversion. A large reason I am proud to be Jewish is the fact that we don’t go around trying to tell everyone else to be like us. We’re a strange mix of elitism (e.g. calling ourselves the “chosen ones”) and self-deprecation (e.g. Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, etc.).

    Those Chabad and Kabbalah folks are ruining it (along with Mr. Safire, whose columns I’ve always found pretentious), making us look like a bunch of Scientologists.

    To them I say this: “Bleck!”

  6. Hilary

    I agree completely with Charlie. And, most of non-Jewish friends say the thing they appreciate most about Judaism is that we don’t try to convert people.

    By the way, you left out matzo ball soup on the list of awesome things we have.

  7. Fun Joel

    I wouldn’t lump Chabad in there. They do not try to convert non-Jews either. They just want to make all Jews more observant.

    Kabbalah as a study and practice isn’t concerned with this either, but the Kabbalah Center, may do some of this. I’m not getting involved in that discussion. 🙂

  8. Neil

    I also think bugging people about conversion is rude. I even made fun of the Mormons and their wacky practices —

    But to be devil’s advocate, I’m sure the Jewish aversion to converting others isn’t a central part of the religion. The Israelites seem to be converting others in the Bible. I think “conversion” is probably a scary word for Jews because throughout history, others are either beating us up or forcing us to convert to their religion. As a small minority, we’re afraid of calling attention to ourselves. But maybe William Safire is right. And what’s so wrong with advertising the religion to others, especially since we think being Jewish is so great? Isn’t it better to have more Jews than a smaller and smaller Jewish community. I have a couple of converts in my family. They know more about Judaism than the rest of my family, and they’re the only ones who don’t complain about the seder being too long before we eat dinner. And single Jewish women, think of all the improvements to Jdate when all of a sudden, hunky blond surfer dudes show up as newly converted Jews.

  9. lizriz

    This entry made me laugh!

    When I called off my wedding, one of the hardest things about the break-up was giving him our menorah. “You’re not Jewish, Liz,” I said to myself. “Let the boy have the menorah.”

    And, BTW, I’ve Done My Part. After we broke up, he found a nice Jewish girl, and now they have a nice Jewish son. His family was always so very not very Jewish, and they always liked me. I think they were the most surprised of all at how good they felt once he was marrying in the faith.

    Oh, and Amen, Hilary! I gave back the menorah, but nobody’s taking away my matzo ball soup!

  10. Neil

    Lizriz, you’re exactly the type of cool non-Jew we should be wooing. Meet us in the backroom of Canter’s Deli at midnight. Of course, before doing any work, we eat. We are Jewish, after all.

  11. Leese

    Lots of food. That’s all you had to say.

  12. Neil

    It’s a Jewish thing, Leese. Maybe it’s a product of the Kosher laws, but I’ve had uncles who have actually had a verbal fight over which restaurant in Queens had the best Chinese food.

    You’re right that I didn’t bring up too many of the religious reasons that someone would want to become a Jew. That’s way beyond my qualifications, considering I’m not that religious. I like that Judaism has a strong sense of morality and justice, and offers a strong spiritual life. Thanks for taking me to task for being so superficial.

  13. Aurorealis

    On more than a few occassions I’ve wanted to look up the nearest Messianic temple and try to fit in as a pretend Jew-for-Jesus just to learn more about Jewish traditions.

  14. Leese

    I love it that you mentioned food because I think that’s pretty original. Most people would try to convert you by talking about the Bible, which confuses a lot of people, or whatever book they follow. Food, however, is something we all understand.

    I think any person who associates with a particular religion would think they have a strong sense of morality and justice and that they live a strong spiritual life. It’s all subjective, though.

    This is why I rarely talk about religion myself. People know that I go to church twice a week without fail, but I don’t talk about it. They ask me where I’m going, to church, I say, and that’s it.

    While some might say that I’m extremely religious based on the number of times I go to church and the fact that I’ve never missed a single service since I was 14, others may say that I don’t do enough because I don’t go around knocking on people’s doors spreading the good word.

    And I think the major flaw of all religions, is that religions are made up of humans. Humans who just happen to have it in their nature to judge each other and seem to be obsessed about being better than the next person.

    And here’s another reason why I don’t talk about it. I tend to babble.

  15. Neil

    Just to be fair, Leese, I’ve been to other religious ceremonies, and the food could be pretty good there (although Catholic food tends to be more tastier than Protestant food, and Hindu food the best of all. Muslims, let’s make peace. I’d like to taste some of your halal food).

    And Aurorealis, going to Messianic Temple to learn about Jews is the same as me watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to learn about Christians.

  16. Leese

    Based on my food choices I’d lean towards Hinduism. You’ll find me practicing at the Sarovar buffet in Sunnyvale, religiously at lunch time.

    Pass the naan.

  17. Josia

    I don’t know what you guys are talking about – it’s 10:25PM here in the Holy Land and my husband and I just demolished enough ‘al haesh’ (meat cooked ‘on the fire’) take away for an entire army!

  18. Neil

    Apparently, William Safire isn’t the only prominent Jew worried about demographics. According to Jewlicious, there was a “secret conference” held a couple of weeks ago to discuss the course of Jewry. Among the luminaries in attendance were attorney and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, President of Brandeis University Prof. Jehuda Reinharz, “former deputy treasury secretary Stuart Eizenstat, Natan Sharansky, Rabbi Samuel Sirat, the former chief rabbi of France, Michael Steinhardt, one of the leading Jewish philanthropists in the U.S., Dennis Ross, Prof. Yehezkel Dror, Jacques Attali, and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow.

    I know my mother doesn’t like when I share our “dirty laundry,” but you can get a good sense of the debate in the Jewish community in the comments here.

    Most of the anger is over who chose these so-called “leaders” and the battle between the reform and Orthodox movements. I’m sure there’s similar problems in all religious groups.

    Let this stand as another example of how Jews love to argue, especially about themselves. You can’t say we’re boring… like the Presbyterians!

  19. lizriz


    You think you want me now? You should taste my brisket.

    Funny story: First time I went to make Hanukkah dinner I came home with groceries and my boyfriend, soon to be fiance, soon to be ex-fiance said, “What are the potatoes for?”

    I stared at him. “Latkas,” I said. Like, hello?

    “Latkas?” he replied. Don’t they make a mix for that?


  20. Michael Blowhard

    Funny posting, thanks. Still, I always had the vague feeling that many of the shrinks, profs, writers, and intellectuals this Christian-raised boy has known were trying to convert me to something like Judaism. Good lord but they could be adamant and full of fervor. Maybe Jews are as into proselytizing as any other religious group, they just do it indirectly?

  21. Jack

    This post made me smile.

  22. Sophia

    The fact is that throughout Jewish history conversion was both welcomed and encouraged. Many scholars believe that in the Bible, the Jewish People became “Chosen People” to spread the light of Judaism.

    Rabbi Schulweis, one of the most prominent progressive American rabbis, always gives these examples:

    The prophet Isaiah declared that God had “created and appointed you a covenant people, a light for the nations,” and that the Talmud states that “God exiled the Jews from their homeland for one reason: to increase the number of converts.”

    Jews were extremely active and successful proselytizers throughout the Roman Empire, until such activities were made a capital crime and forcibly suppressed when Christianity became the state religion.

    Here’s an interesting article on the subject:

    Judaism, vol. 43, no. 3 (Summer, 1994)

    Do I think it’s a good idea? You bet your Kosher turkey bacon. Am I comfortable doing it myself? Not really.

  23. FunJoel

    Wow! This comment thread has really taken off today while I’ve been slaving away!

    Okay, so I’ll just add two things. First of all, for those who feel they can’t speak about observance, or want to learn more, I am observant and am happy to answer questions, off the site. But I don’t judge others or try to convince people what they should do, which is why I’m not rattling stuff off here! If you want to know, ask, and I’ll answer.

    Secondly, while it is an established concept that Jews try to be an “Or LaGoyim” — a Light to the Nations, this is different than proseletyzing and trying to convert. The traditional understanding (at least in my understanding) is that the Torah, as a moral guide, is for the whole world, but that doesn’t mean that everyone (in our beliefs) should convert to Judaism. Rather, in the second portion of the Torah, there is a list of 7 basic laws that we believe all people must follow. They are known as the Noachite Laws, or the 7 Laws of the Sons of Noah. They apply to the world, who are not Jews. In fact, there are Noachite Synagogues scattered around the world today — people who do not want to convert to Judaism, but believe they should follow these 7 laws, and celebrate the moral traditions of Jews.

  24. Esther

    Secret conferences? Sounds like we’re running the world. And if we are, I’d like a piece of that action. ‘Cause man, my rent’s friggin’ higher than Jay and Silent Bob outside a deli.

  25. Neil

    Proof that Jews don’t run the world: If we were really running the world, Burger King wouldn’t be allowed to serve that awful sausage and egg thing on a bagel.

  26. Jill

    Hi there. Found you at I’m probably a member of that same Beverly Hills temple, but at the High Holidays, I sit between two ICM agents.

  27. Neil

    Welcome, Jill. I’d chat some more, but there are two Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door trying to convert me.

  28. amber

    I do wanna join. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, just because. I’m not really religious and there’s no where here for me to join ‘the tribe’ either, so maybe I just want it because I can’t have it. Really I’m just curious about faith in general and the Jewish faith in general.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial